Tag Archives: panic attack

Facing my fear of public speaking

6 Jul

10:22 pm

And, it’s about time, eh?  It’s only been 13 years!

Seriously.  I’ve had what some call fear, what others call performance anxiety or a social phobia around speaking in front of groups for 13 years–ever since that fateful day in one of my graduate school seminars where I literally lost control of myself and shut down during a group presentation.  I am sure I must have drunk the night before, so there was some element of alcohol involved, which probably served to heighten the feelings of panic.  A few months prior, I had also had my first literal panic attack in another class, so my nerves had already been rewired/primed for panic by the time this incident happened.

What actually happened was what happens now, every time I speak in front of any group, whether comprised of strangers or friends:  my heart starts to beat UNCONTROLLABLY hard; I can’t breathe; I can’t speak; and I feel SO nervous and amped up by all this stuff going on inside my body that I feel like I’m about to pass out.

Before these past few months, I’ve been able to straight up avoid EVER talking in front of groups.  Of course, I’ve had to endure these occasions once in a while–saying goodbye to a group of fellow volunteers on a volunteer project; saying my name and what I do in front of a group of my coworkers–and they have felt utterly horrific.  My heart pounds, my entire body starts shaking, my voice starts wavering, or, I just can’t breathe and start to dart around in place, wishing with my entire being that I could just GET THE EFF out of that room.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I found out that I have to give a (short, probably not a big deal) presentation for my job in front of my (small, only about 20 folks) team at a group meeting in July.  UGH.  I’ve literally been obsessing about it since I found out a few weeks ago–like, extremely nervous at even the thought of standing up, talking, trying to figure out how the heck I’m going to remain standing.  I haven’t even been able to imagine past the first few seconds of my talk.

So, I decided two weeks ago that I just need to resolve this–if not solve my problem, then somehow resolve it.  I made an appointment with a psychiatrist, hoping/thinking that he’d prescribe me either Xanax or some other benzo used for panic attacks.  Come to find out, there are tons of people just like me, and they are all using beta blockers!?  The doc gave me a prescription for a beta blocker; long story short, I went to a public speaking group the other night to “try it out,” and uh, I actually stood in front of a group of strangers willingly and talked my head off–no nerves, no aversion, no shaking voice, no sign that I wasn’t “a natural,” as several people who congratulated me after I came down told me.  (what a fraud, I laughed on the inside; hey, whatever it takes, the other me shot back)

Either the drug worked, or I just didn’t feel that much anxiety in this particular situation.  The people I was speaking in front of were warm and welcoming; strangers; no one related to my job, I thought.  Hmm.  There was no sense of, I have to perform my JOB AS A WRITER, which is connected to this talk, PERFECTLY, or someone somewhere is going to find out what a fraud I am, what an imposter!

I am fairly sure that this drug will help me–it’s already sort of stopped that creeping sense of anxiety I had even just a few days ago, thinking about my work event–to “retrain” my brain, at least a little.  I’ve witnessed that I can get up there and actually talk in front of people without that horrifying sense of fear and panic, and that has somehow already rewired me to feel less nervous about the upcoming work thing.

Still.  What if I was just not nervous enough because these people have nothing to do with work?  Because I don’t care what they think?  Because I felt safe there, and not judged?  It’s interesting to me that this sort of PTSD surrounding talking in front of groups revolves not necessarily around all groups, only groups where I am performing and that performance is based on something that I feel insecure about (apparently, writing).

What surprised me more than this discovery–I kind of knew that this is a form of PTSD; what I didn’t know what how intertwined it is with my sense of imposter syndrome related to writing and journalism–was how empowering and relieving it was to dredge up my drinking past, my panic attack past (related to my drinking past) with an actual psychotherapist!  I haven’t really talked about it in years; I stopped going to AA years ago, too.  It was nice to just get it out there again, in the open.

I am so tired of this old story about my fear of public speaking; I wasn’t always like this, and I have to believe that nothing is impossible, that this story I have told myself for 13 years is not forever truth.  I have to believe that I can tell a new story about myself when it comes to public speaking–and frankly, I AM starting to believe that it could be as simple as some medication and exposure therapy to at least allow myself to survive these public speaking situations.

It just feels good to have finally stopped running from what has obviously affected both my professional and personal life for almost a decade and a half.

Now, we’ll have to wait and see how things pan out at my work even in a few weeks.  Sure, I am dreading it, but with this medication and a few more practice runs at the public speaking group and other events (maybe speaking at an AA meeting?), I might just survive.  (I am not looking to THRIVE as a public speaker at this point, just survive; and that’s good enough for me right now.)

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